Hami to Zhangye 1 – 10 November 2012

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post – the Great Firewall defeated us in Zhangye so we’re only able to post this belatedly now we’re here in Chengdu.  We’ll post our Zhangye to Chengdu tale as soon as we can…..probably early December.  Anyhow…here’s Hami to Zhangye:

Some people might call it cheating, but we say “Whoever said there were any rules to this travelling lark?”

As we’d approached Hami, both Keith and I had been feeling increasingly unwell with stomach cramps, nausea, loss of appetite and lack of energy, so it was with relief that we reached Hami and booked into a hotel.  For a day we thought we were feeling a bit better but then…well, let’s just say we appreciated the en-suite loo.  As Keith was the least ill of the pair of us he gallantly went in search of pharmaceutical succour whilst I languished near the en-suite.  So having arrived in Hami on the Thursday, intending to leave on the Saturday morning, it wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon that we actually set foot to pedal.  In the meantime, the weather had taken a distinct turn towards the frosty and we cycled past strange patches of glistening brown desert, which, upon closer inspection this turned out to be snow that had fallen during a sandstorm.  (It’s remained cold enough since then for the snow to remain on the ground, with temperatures falling below zero every night and barely reaching double figures even on the sunnier days…brrrr!)

We couldn’t find the old 312 road as we left Hami so were stuck on its replacement, the tedious G30 dual-carriageway, with lots of trucks and little to see but boring gravelly desert stretching away into the ever-present smog.  We were feeling pretty feeble and progress was slow, so on the Monday, when an English-speaking Chinese man stopped for a chat and to see if we wanted a lift we were sorely tempted.  But he was only going a further 60km down the road so it didn’t seem worth it.  We soon began to regret our decision though as the kilometres felt like they were taking forever.

The trailer going up

Ten kilometres later, when a truck slowed alongside to get a better look at us, Keith didn’t hesitate.  Out went the thumb and on went the hopeful puppy-dog face.  And it worked!  The truck stopped and so did the one which was in convoy behind it.  Within a short while our tandem and trailer were strapped securely on top of the cargo of the first truck, our front bags were in its storage compartment and our rear panniers and solar panel were in the storage compartment of the second truck.  400km disappeared in a matter of hours and our lovely driver and his wife fed us apples and pastries on the way.  We offered our driver some money, but he wouldn’t accept it, preferring an English fiver as a memento.

Hardcore French Michael had left Hami promptly on the Friday (into the snowy sandstorm…or sandy snowstorm, whichever way you prefer it) and Aussies Laura and Ash had left on the Saturday once the storm had cleared, so we’d kept our eyes out for them, wondering whether we should shout and wave as we passed or keep our heads down in shame, but we saw neither so didn’t have to make that decision.

Back under our own steam and feeling much better we trundled into Jiayuguan, which at one point was the border between China and Central Asia and gave us our first glimpse of one of the fortresses along the Great Wall.  But it was mid-afternoon on an overcast, cold day and we wanted lunch rather than tourist attractions…and in any case the fort wasn’t the original but had been rebuilt more recently, so we didn’t stop but carried on into the town centre and enjoyed a delicious lunch, and then bought some fairly decent maps in the bookshop.  Sensibly scaled maps (something with a scale better than 1:1,000,000) have been hard to come by in China despite visiting bookshops in every city and town we go to, but Jiayuguan was a winner.

The fort at Jiayuguan

We’d hoped to camp between Jiayuguan and Jiuquan, but the 20km between them was all industrial and there was nowhere suitable, so we ended up going through the fairly large city of Jiuquan as night fell and eventually found some wasteground on the south side of the city next to the highway.  In the morning we went back into Jiuquan to buy a new SIM card for our mobile phone as ours had ceased to function upon leaving Xinjiang province, and, to our delight and astonishment bumped into Laura and Ash, who’d had the same cunning plan as us and hitched for 200km.  We’d all have preferred to ride all the way through China, but with visas only coming in 30 day chunks (of which you lose 5 days as you need to apply for an extension in good time and it can take that long for an extension to be issued….or indeed they may choose not to issue one and you need to leave time for plan B) and the continuing cold weather, we’d come to the conclusion that we’d had enough of slogging through endless desert on the dual-carriageway, never having time to see any of the sights, and in all likelihood facing the prospect of having to get a lift anyway later in the trip when we’d perhaps be missing more interesting sights than the desert (of which we’ve already seen plenty thank you very much!).  And so what Ash dubbed ‘Operation Enjoyment’ was put into play and we returned to being tourists instead of relentless cycling machines.  We rode one final day on the highway and then rolled back onto the old 312, riding through small towns and villages, watching the desert change to agricultural land and back again, and excitedly making plans to see some tourist attractions in the town of Zhangye.  The 312 is not a particularly busy road so for much of the time we were able to ride side by side chatting, and our decision to stop in Zhangye proved to be a very good one as snow began to fall just as we rolled into town.  It took us a while to find a hotel as many won’t accept ‘foreign friends’, but with the help of a friendly local called Chen Gang (who spoke good English and accompanied us to two or three hotels) we finally found a suitably cheap and “foreign-friend”-friendly one.

Zhangye Pagoda

That evening, after the usual round of washing clothes and catching up on emails that seems to take up the bulk of any hotel stop for a cycle tourist, we went for a stroll around the sights of Zhangye in the bitter cold and then to a small restaurant for  dinner.

We have a number of strategies for ordering food.  If we can’t find a place with an English menu then we look for somewhere with pictures on the wall, and failing that somewhere with plenty of people eating and then we just point at other diners’ dishes, and failing that we just take pot-luck with the menu, or sometimes we’ll employ a combination of the above.  Most of the time we’ve done well and ordered some delicious dishes, but once what we’d hoped was a vegetable dish turned out to be just a massive plate of fried peanuts.  Tasty but not what we were really after.  We took most of them in a doggy bag to nibble on the road and ordered something else.

Team Oz, feasting

The next day the snow had stopped falling but everywhere was blanketed and it was very cold.

Ash summed up what was on everyone’s mind

With Operation Enjoyment in full swing we paid for a second night at the hotel and the four of us caught a bus for sixty increasingly slippery kilometres out to Mati Si and the Horse Hoof Monastery.  The bus normally stops at a junction close to the village of Mati He where you either take a taxi the final 10km up to Mati Si, or wait for the local minibus to fill up and take you there.  But as we were the only people likely to be going up to the monastery that day our bus driver offered to take us up for an additional 100 yuan (about £10).  Keith beat him down to 50 yuan and established from a conversation with another passenger that the last bus back to Zhangye would be leaving from the junction at 5.30pm. How we got back there from the monastery would be up to us.

7km from the junction you enter the ‘scenic area’ and have to pay 35 yuan for the privilege and then another 35 to enter the monastery itself, but we were only charged 55 for the two tickets, perhaps as a concession to the cold weather.

Mati Si high street

Mati Si in the snow is beautiful.  The bus dropped us in a pretty but deserted street of decorated houses, from where it was a short walk up the hill to the Horse Hoof Monastery itself.

The temple at Mati Si

Between 500 and 1500 years ago a series of Buddhist temples were carved into the mountain.  Each little room has a statue in it surrounded by paintings, carvings, incense sticks and offerings ranging from grapes to money. Brightly painted balconies cling to the cliff face and link some of the rooms, whilst others are accessed up steep and unevenly carved stairs within the rock itself.

The guardian of the temple

The only other people we saw were a solitary monk (who confirmed we were heading in the correct direction from the village) and the man who checked our entry tickets (whose only companion was a large chicken).

Ash going up

Tamar on a painted balcony

Looking back from the temple

Laura coming down

After exploring the temple, and in the absence of any other mode of transport, we walked the 10km back down to the junction, to arrive just in time for the 5pm bus, which Keith sprinted for and which then waited for the rest of us.  One of the passengers was a man Keith had been speaking to on the morning bus and who’d told us about the last bus back.  To our confusion the ticket collector wouldn’t take any money from us, and as we got off the bus in Zhangye we discovered that our fellow passenger had paid our fares!  We thanked him but insisted that we must repay him, but he just smiled and backed away, becoming lost in the crowd.

Although some people here still seem quite rude, jostling and pushing us out of the way to get a better look at the bike, we’ve also met a lot of lovely people, like the bus passenger, the people who’ve given us lifts on the road and Chen Gang who helped us find a hotel.  Quite frequently people who can speak a little English will give us their phone numbers and insist we call them if we have any difficulties, and in Hami a radio presenter gave us four bottles of water and welcomed us to China.  A lady at a petrol station where we were buying some water, shyly whispered “Welcome to China!” before hiding her face behind her hand and giggling with embarrassment.  It more than makes up for the more frustrating experiences.

China is a fairly cheap place to travel in, but our budget’s taken a bit of a hit since we got here as we’ve been shopping:

In Aksu:

  • Two new helmets – Keith’s bit the dust in the truck from the Chinese border to the immigration control centre, and mine had suffered some cracks last year when the bike fell on it (blown over on a windy day), and was also not quite the right shape to comfortably fit my sun visor plus a hat or a hood beneath it.
  • A 2m square silver foil sleeping mat that extends almost the entire length of our inner tent and about 25cm up the side walls.  It’s only 2mm thick and therefore doesn’t really disguise bumpy ground too well, but it does make the ground feel less cold, which is particularly welcome partway through the night after our mats have slowly deflated.  I wouldn’t say the sub-zero nights are comfortable….but they’re at least bearable now.

In Hami:

  • A new camera – replacing the one I dropped, which we tried to get repaired in Turpan but was beyond redemption.  We’ve gone for another Lumix so that the controls are familiar enough for me not to require another 3 year learning curve but this model allows more manual setting of shutter speed and the like so Keith is very happy.
  • Warmer gloves for Keith’s cold hands.
  • Warm socks for Keith
  • New trousers for me – replacing the ones that had sun-bleached from a lovely blue-grey to a patchy lilac (why can’t manufacturers of outdoor clothing use a fabric that can withstand being worn outdoors?) and had also become rather too loose on me. (Grin!)

Keith’s blog addition:-

An interesting thing about China is that despite it’s being 4400km (2725 miles) from east to west, “officially” it is all in the same time zone, that of Beijing (GMT +8hrs).  Beijing is in the east of the country, and GMT +8hrs, suits it well, but when you are about 3000 or 4000kms west of there, it means the morning sun doesn’t rise (at this time of year) until about 8:30am, and then doesn’t set until about 6:30pm.  So if you have a habit of using the sun for rough navigation, then the midday sun is still well short of being south, and it can sometimes get a little confusing.  Also, in the far west of China (Kashgar for example) they have an “unofficial” local time which is 2 hours different from Beijing, but as you travel east, the use of unofficial local time gets less and less until you reach Turpan, where they just do everything on Beijing time.  This caught us out a couple of times, and we nearly got into trouble for not checking out of our hotel room on time, and restaurants seemed to close very early, until we realised we now needed to fully adopt Beijing time.

Another point of interest is the currency – the Yuan.  There are a few coins in circulation, but it is really unusual to actually see any.  Nearly always, all of your money is in paper notes.  There are roughly 10 Yuan to the GB-pound at the moment, and the notes start at a value that is equivalent to 1 pence (or 0.1 of a Yuan).  There is also a note for 0.5Yuan, then 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 – so equivalents to 5p, 10p, 50p, £1, £2, £5 & £10, all in paper money.  So when you’re doing the shopping, you are constantly taking this fistful of notes from your pocket, also, everybody seems to be trained on how to handle large fistfuls of notes and they all count your change out in a very specific manner, folding the notes over their fingers to count them back to you – we haven’t mastered this yet.

And back to Tamar…

In addition to the baffling road rules mentioned in the last post, we’ve also noticed that the Chinese are fond of decorating their cars’ rear windows.  It’s most common to see it on taxis, but a fair number of private cars will have either a speedometer painted across their rear window or a map of a racing circuit.

And finally the other particularly Chinese thing we’ve come across is the face mask.  We think it’s in response to the appalling pollution.  About 30-40% of the women and a smaller proportion of men, particularly in cities, wear facemasks looped over their ears.  Some are very plain – the men’s are usually just white or black – but a lot of the women and children wear coloured ones adorned with an array of spots, bows, sequins, stripes, flowers, checks and/or cartoon animals.

One response to “Hami to Zhangye 1 – 10 November 2012

  1. Great to read another very interesting post. Here in the north Uk sunset us just before 4.00pm and sun up is about 7.30am – the dark days before Christmas. In addition it’s dreary with lots of rain and fog today. Some parts of the country has had more flooding too. So I haven’t been out cycling since last Saturday.
    We have a saying- we are out to enjoy , not to endure- so I don’t think it’s a shame to get a lift. Enjoy yourselves.
    Brenda in the Boro

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